Today I’m reviewing The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel. I’ve divided this review into two sections: an overview of the novel that’ll hopefully compel you to read it if you haven’t already, followed by a more detailed discussion of the novel’s literary elements — characters, plot, setting, so on and so forth. I’ve marked the second section with a spoilers tag so you’ll know where to stop if you’re looking to read the book unspoiled!
“See you at tennis,” he said. I watched him walk back to the café holding his paper. I rather liked him and evidently she led him quite a life.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
An overview of The Sun Also Rises (NO SPOILERS)
The New York Times called Hemingway’s debut novel “An absorbing, beautifully and tenderly absurd, heart-breaking narrative,” and I think that just about sums up my experience of The Sun Also Rises. It’s one of my favorite books, and I’ll assure you that at the very least you’ll find it full of brilliant writing — and, for the writers among us, that you’ll learn a lot about writing from reading it.
If you’re a Hemingway fan, you’ve probably already read The Sun Also Rises — but if you haven’t, please give it a read! It’s one of his greatest works. Some of his later writing feels tired and features characters who sometimes fail to capture the imagination. But his first novel could arguably take the title of his crowning achievement. (The Old Man and the Sea would disagree, I’m sure.)
The novel has two epigraphs. One is from Gertrude Stein. In conversation, she said, “You are all a lost generation.” I believe that Hemingway in fact recorded the exact conversation in A Moveable Feast, his humorous quasi-memoir about the time he spent in Paris as a young man.
The other epigraph comes from Ecclesiastes, which is coincidentally my favorite book in the Bible. I’m not Christian, but I was raised Christian, and I find Ecclesiastes filled with wisdom that most anyone could appreciate. And it’s from this epigraph that Hemingway drew the title The Sun Also Rises. Here’s the beginning part of it:
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose…
I’ve chosen to focus a bit on the epigraphs in this opening section because they’re spoiler-free (duh) and reveal a lot about the novel’s themes. The characters in The Sun Also Rises typify the “lost generation” Gertrude Stein referred to in her quote. Which is a paradoxical thing, if you think about it. The generation that served in the Second World War was widely regarded as “lost” due to the loss of life in that conflict, but here are some members who remain — are they too lost, in their own way? If so, how? In the end, Hemingway comes to the conclusion that his characters are in fact not lost, despite all they have suffered.
Without revealing too much, I’ll tell you that the novel hinges on a trip to the bullfights in Pamplona and the relationship between the first-person narrator, Jake Barnes, and his sometimes-paramour Lady Brett Ashley. The drama revolves around the interactions within the group of travelers and the appearance of a young bullfighter.
So if I’ve hooked you, and you haven’t read The Sun Also Rises, give it a shot! Here’s a link to an economical copy on Amazon. It’s an affiliate link, so I’ll make a small commission if you choose to purchase through it. This is a great example of a situation-based novel. After all, the story really is as simple as the one-line blurb on the back cover — “The author’s first full-length novel, about a group of expatriates traveling from Paris to the Pamplona bullfights.”
With that being said, I’m ready to dig deeper into the story for those of you who have already read it and are looking for some analysis!
A closer look at The Sun Also Rises (***SPOILERS PRESENT***)
I’m focusing on a few aspects of The Sun Also Rises that intrigue me as a reader and as a Hemingway fan.
First, a few words about the style of this novel, which is in my eyes the most classic and enduring example of the Hemingway trademark. In some of his later works, in my opinion, he took his characteristic style — marked by word economy, lack of punctuation, and general clarity — too far, leading his prose to become stiff and dialogue to become stilted in places.
The Sun Also Rises, on the other hand, reads with fluidity. It’s actually a fairly reasonably sized novel, around 68,000 words, but it reads more like a novella. In my mind, this is mostly because of the speed of Hemingway’s style through both prose and dialogue. He allows his sentences some length and elegance in places, but they’re short and crisp in others, and the overall economy of language is superb. He doesn’t shy away from the occasional comma or semicolon in The Sun Also Rises, as he does in some later works. This, in my opinion, makes his writing more readable here. I’ve never read a book that flies like The Sun Also Rises. On the level of sheer readability, it’s an easy read and a great ride.
That said, the readability of the novel and simplicity of its narrative mask some of its deeper themes. Similarly, most of the characters are somewhat likable, yet also deeply flawed. At the surface is the narrator, Jake Barnes, whose war wound “has made him unable to have sex,” to cite Wikipedia (because I can’t think of a better way of saying that). Jake, an extremely reasonable, passive man, suffers from an extraordinary physical flaw that stands in the way of a sustainable relationship with any woman, including his sometimes-lover Brett.
To me, Brett is one of Hemingway’s most interesting female characters ever. Some critics argue that she’s Hemingway’s typification of an unpleasant woman (in stronger words), who does unpleasant things and injures the other characters in the process. The romance between Jake and Brett, after all, seems tragic. She’s unwilling to overlook his war wound, and he, by the end of the novel, seems unwilling to overlook her affairs with other men. Despite this, they still love each other.
But under the definition of love presented in this novel — love uncorrupted by sex or lust — Jake’s love for Brett, and her love for him, endures. In my opinion, Hemingway drew their relationship and Brett’s character well. She is perhaps the most lost of all the characters, but she also represents freedom. The sort of personal and sexual freedom she stands for, though, comes at a cost.
All of the characters are wandering. They’re expatriates, after all. But, as the old saying goes, not all those who wander are lost. Coming to the end of the novel, I can’t say exactly how Hemingway reaches this conclusion. But it’s self-evident. Life flows on, like a river to the sea, yet the sea is never filled.
All in all, The Sun Also Rises is a profound book in simple clothing. The first time I read it, I read for language and simplicity. The second time I read it, I thought more deeply about the characters and themes. Since it’s so easy to overlook deeper meaning in the face of the language Hemingway used to write it, it’s a book that took me multiple readings to reach a broader understanding. Again, if you haven’t read it, I suggest that you do. In my eyes, it’s one of the greatest books of all time, and certainly one of Hemingway’s finest works.
For some more Hemingway-inspired writing…
And read my tribute to Ernest Hemingway.